There’s a hypocrisy in my wardrobe and in the very nature of what I do for a living that is sometimes difficult to reconcile, when wanting to contribute to Fashion Revolution Day, the ongoing movement that commemorates what happened at Rana Plaza two years ago. On the one hand, I imagine a utopia where every fashion brand from high street to high end will have entirely transparent, accountable and fairly waged supply chains, where the negative impact on environment is fully calculated and minimised where possible. I imagine governments passing legislation in all countries involved so that workers are fully protected. I imagine a majority collective consumer base that is also conscious of their decisions, demanding better of what they buy.
These aren’t unattainable goals especially in a year where discussions about new EU rules on traceability and transparency in the textiles and clothing sector are being held at the European Commission and being put forward to the agenda for the G7 summit in June. The right conversations are being had and change is afoot even if for the most part, it isn’t the brands that are instigating it. Although H&M’s latest Sustainability report with its goals for 2nd tier transparency and renewable energy sources is an encouraging sign.
But on the other hand, I work in an industry that promotes the feeling of wanting the new and wanting more of it. I work with brands whose supply chains I can’t detail to you from the start to finish. And whilst I would like to think that I promote young designers because of their unadulterated creativity as well as behind the scenes in-depth looks at manufacturing (where possible), the fact of the matter is that the obstacle that I can’t quite get over is that I must truly be excited aesthetically by what it is I’m looking at. And the truth is that sometimes, supply chains and environmental impact don’t always enter into my line of questioning when appraising a young designer or a new collection.
Greenwashing content and coverage is almost just as bad as greenwashing brands as we as bloggers, journalists and content creators do have an active sway over readers and their consumer choices. And so it is with a two-minded-ness that I recount what I took away from this year’s Fashion Revolution Day. I don’t want to reel off facts, figures and guilt trip anyone with stories of victims’ sob stories. That tale has been told well by numerous sources – the heartbreakingly well-observed BBC2 ‘Clothes to Die For’ documentary for one, and the forthcoming documentary ‘True Cost’ by Andrew Morgan, which will be released on May 29th on iTunes. That will bring the point home, judging by the twenty minute trailer previewed with Business of Fashion on Fashion Revolution Day, as it outlines the nuts and bolts of what fast fashion is and what in fact is its true cost to the worker. It looks like it will have a powerful effect to further galvanise the conversation.
The trailer was followed by a panel discussion with Lucy Siegle of The Guardian, director Andrew Morgan and Livia Firth
Protest blue plaques honouring the victims of Rana Plaza placed on high street stores on Oxford Circus organised by Brick Lane Debates
For now I want to look past the tragedy and instead try and seek out the solutions. Not ones that will entirely absolve us all from the collective problem that we as government, consumers and brand, have created. Every little helps as it were. It’s about building up awareness of the alternatives as well as making the active choices to invest in them, without sacrificing what even staunch defenders of sustainable fashion; people like Orsola de Castro feels is the common goal in fashion – to creatively express freely and in doing so, inspire.
It’s a quagmire of choice out there, not just within fast fashion but also in the alternatives – with varying levels of stylistic interest. On the eve of Fashion Revolution Day, I headed over to Here Today Here Tomorrow, a shop in Dalston that is both a design studio with its own in-house label and a multi-brand store with a selection of labels where Orsola had organised a workshop and a discussion with five current Central Saint Martins BA students in their final year, all endeavouring to work with projects that are based on sustainable principles. For these young students, they liken slow fashion to the slow food movement. It makes sense not just as a lifestyle but as a natural working practise.
Their views were enlightened and optimistic of a future where they can collectively make a difference to how the industry works. We talked about the idea of big vs. small. Is there only one way of success? In London, we’re awash with success stories of designers with incoming investment and sheeny shiny stores on Mount Street. But is that the common goal for all graduates emerging today? It’s interesting that these students yearn to work in smaller scales in order to make a difference. Not that scaleability isn’t possible – just look at the likes of Toms or People Tree.
For the most part, all of the students are tackling waste and discarded materials, guided by Orsola, who with her own label From Somewhere, holds connections to factories where discarded Alaia and Missoni knits can be found. Their work is the sort of part conceptual, part pragmatic creative beginnings that could lead to any number of routes. Starting their own labels or instigating change from within. One of the students Grace Gowers remarked that when interning for fashion brands in New York, it felt like nobody was interested in ideas of sustainability. To that, Orsola says she is hopeful that this will change when generations of designers move through the ranks.
Rozalina Burkova taps into her Bulgarian roots to build up both physical and cultural textures out of
Grace Gowers is working on a project that addresses both ideals of youth and beauty in fashion with re-appropriated materials.
Alex Noble (by name and by nature it would seem!) also popped in to show us pieces from the new Traderemade collection he was working on with Oxfam’s Traid.
Katie Jones, whose upcycled knitwear line is going from strength to strength, was on hand to teach me how to crochet. The point wasn’t to turn me into a crochet wizard but to emphasise what it takes to make the upcycled knits that she does. I sucked royally at it whilst Katie was whizzing through her crochet stitches. It’s simple exercises like this that point out that the role of the designer and the skilled craftsman is vital still. It also helps to close that disconnect between wearer and garment, something which we have lost over the last hundred years due to the sheer availability (and disposability) of our clothes.
I’m ashamed to say that Here Today Here Tomorrow is a shop that I’ve passed by numerous times on the bus but have never ventured in. And I’m not sure why. One of the co-owners Katelyn Toth-Fejel who also works at the Centre of Sustainable Fashion was kind enough to show me around the compact but packed space. One of the labels that I had heard of but not seen in person was Antiform, the Bristol-based label that is run by a team of local designers, researches and communicators. Antiform’s pieces utilise excess of high quality textiles from the UK, such as luxury Yorkshire tweed and jersey from heritage mills. It celebrates on-shoring of garment and textile as well as the unnecessary waste of the textiles industry.
One of the arguments levied against sustainable fashion is that it’s prohibitively priced. Not so at Here Today Here Tomorrow where prices are more than comparable with the Topshops and COS’s of the high street. Katelyn points out that it’s also the role of media to educate and promote the alternatives. We need to ask why sustainable or ethical fashion is maligned to specialist sites and publications when it could also be promoted in mainstream media.
On Fashion Revolution Day itself, I once again went down to Designer Jumble, held inside a church just a stone’s throw away from Primark on Oxford Street, to do a spot of mannequin styling where Abigail Chisman had gathered up rails of bargainous Prada, Chanel and Rodarte to sell, proposing what probably is my most oft-practised form of conscious consumerism. Nothing gives me more pleasure than buying second hand designer finds and with the popularity of sites like Vestiaire & Co and Vaunt, the trade is roaring as we edit our wardrobes. New site Rentez-Vous takes it to another level by offering people the chance to rent designer clothes for a week, with selections generated by users. Think of it as Try or Buy eBay. See what a Stella McCartney dress feels like for a tenner a week and see if you want to buy it. I’m thinking of placing some of the more lavish pieces I hardly wear up on the site for rental. It means I can carry on hoarding whilst preventing perfectly nice clothes from gathering dust in the wardrobe.
And just in case you think that this post is merely about box-ticking for the occasion, my thoughts of how to tackle and approach sustainable fashion and how to be a more conscious consumer are being carried on elsewhere in what will be a film project that I’m hopefully undertaking. And should solutions and alternatives present themselves in the way that the likes of Katie Jones or Lizzie of Antiform does, the best I can do is to reveal them, enthuse and ultimately, wear. I have no right to get on my soap box and fight the cause heads on or wag my fingers at readers in admonishment. But investigating the exciting journeys that are emerging as a positive reaction to shady supply chains. That I can do.
Photography by Rachel Mann